Alexandria, VA – There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
Thousands of words have been written and spoken about the “neighbor.” A neighbor is often a writer’s plaything and a comedian’s perfect set-up, but for the bulk of us regular humans, a neighbor may be a blessing, a mysterious unknown, a monster, or even something akin to a terrorist. Regardless of your situation vis-à-vis neighbors, the most difficult part may be a test of your religious beliefs.
Many Christians lean on the Decalogue, more commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments. The near-mystical collection of Thou shalt and Thou shalt not tries to steer Jews and Christians alike in a moral direction of conduct and, just toward the end, has an uncanny percentage of rules regarding neighbors. If God’s “Top Ten” was a recipe for human conduct, then why did He/She talk about neighbors so much instead of “mankind,” “people,” or “folks.” If you think Jesus was into parables in a big way, the Old Testament cites just how poetic his parent was with all His/Her metaphors.
“Neighbor” seems a popular reference to people collectively in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Moses, a Jewish slave in Eqypt, escapes leading thousands across the desert, just ahead of a nasty posse of Egyptian tycoons who once owned all the Jews, when they bump into the Red Sea. So Moses parts it to prove that God’s on their side and keeps everyone together even when they get really testy from being in the desert so long while they look for a new place to hang out.
One night Moses goes to the top of a mountain to chill from the stress of leading this surly group. All his friends party way into the night, get loaded, make statues of “new” gods, and start trashing the place. On the mountain, God hands Moses some stone tablets and sends him down to tell the folks what the tablets say. When Moses gets to the campsite and sees the mess everyone left, like a parent returning from a weekend getaway to see their teenager’s party remains, he goes bonkers, smashes the tablets, and storms off. Over the next several days, he pieces the tablets together with some biblical Gorilla Glue and reads them to the hungover crowd.
Versions vary depending on whose Bible you read, but the last couple of commandments went something like this:
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house;
thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.
Clearly, a neighbor was a big deal to God, and by extension, to Moses. Over millennia, however, the commandments endured, but the sentiment and often the practices did not.
Today, we live in a society that doesn’t know their neighbors, is afraid of contact with unknown persons (so keep a low profile and don’t ask questions), or sometimes embraces a connection with neighbors. But the latter is the exception, not the rule. And we have all experienced the above to some extent in our lives.
When we lived in Old Town, we had a smorgasbord of neighbors: the kind neighbors who always chatted with us and made us feel welcome; the neighbor who loved gossiping about us because we were “new” to Old Town; the eccentric neighbors, right out of central casting, who loved to blow air horns at bicyclists who didn’t obey posted traffic signs; mysterious neighbors who kept their blinds drawn and whom, in two years, we never saw exit their house; and the “neighbors” staggering down the street at two AM, shouting at 500 decibels, putting out cigars in our flowers or urinating in a shrub. These are the collective neighbors that Moses quoted to his throng, and ever since we agonize as we attempt to follow the last several commandments.
The great American writer, Mark Twain, captured this dichotomy regarding neighbors and religion rather beautifully:
Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven…
Today, we live in a small village in Normandy, France. It is a charming rural area with lots of cattle and produce farms. Normandy is green year-round, and the landscape is dotted with many different animals – chickens, horses, pigs, and of course, cows. The region is known for its Calvados “cider” and because of the wide array of dairy cattle, milk, cream, and phenomenal cheeses.
We visited our closest neighbor the other day to have lunch on their patio. It was a glorious Normandy day, a crisp 75 (Fahrenheit), blue sky, gliding clouds. We ate lunch amidst our French/British neighbors’ lush flower garden. Europeans are religious about their gardens; Sarah and Pierre’s looks like something out of Architectural Digest. They are far from posh types. As an example of their characters, they told a little story about our neighbors, folks with whom they get along famously. I pass it along to you, dear reader, to provide a fitting example of the concept of neighbors:
Madam Bonvie down the lane had a big and very sweet bull. On the other side of her fence lived some hybrid cows, which Madam Trilleau, another neighbor, leased to Monsieur Corneille. At one point, all the cows came into heat at the same time, capturing the bull’s attention and intentions.
As Pierre explained, never in his life had he seen a bull jump straight up and over a fence like Superman. He then mounted each of the cows and, mission complete, jumped back home. The trouble was these hybrids were due to be artificially inseminated and sold at a very high price because of the breed. That started quite a row which the locals refer to as the new Hundred Year’s War.
The bull was put down due to the incident, and the neighbors no longer speak. Madam Bonvie, in her late 90s, often drives her little munchkin car fast as she can past the field where the crime occurred. This sad memory has led to her manic driving, and she is now a danger to the entire neighborhood.
We are confronted daily with news stories around the globe about how neighbors treat one another and how ineffective walls have become. Any religion has intended to encourage support and connection with one’s neighbors to preserve peace. Yet entire cultures, races, and even countries erect walls or tear down walls, many to punish, attack, dominate, or conquer their neighbors with mercenary or theological motives, simply because their neighbor is different. This is contrary to every faith and known religion.
It may be difficult in today’s world to find the type of neighbors and neighborhoods we enjoyed decades ago. We have lost much of the theological tradition of “neighbor” that was elemental to our roots and so preoccupied the thoughts and teachings of the world’s apostles, disciples, prophets, and religious scribes. Call them Commandments, the Decalogue, or anything you want. In every religion, they all wind up with the same message – love thy neighbor.
Maybe Frost was right — good fences don’t necessarily make good neighbors.
End notes It is interesting that many Christian faiths have different interpretations of what the Ten Commandments are. The Septuagints, Samaritans, Reformists, Catholics, Augustinians, and Lutherans all have similar texts, but they often disagree on how to group the commandments, so much so that it’s tough to determine which ones are grouped with which and why. Clearly, the Old and New Testaments had a lot of editors with broad editorial interpretations and power.  I chose to include the gender preference here of He/She, not because of current trends, but because my mother frequently told me that “God could be a woman. All that ‘He’ stuff is because the Bible was written by men.”  Ever been to a desert? You would be testy too, after three years in the Sinai desert.